Jayantika Singh, AIR 286
Law Optional, Self Study and 5 years work experience, First Mains
Internet is replete with what to study and its sources. Some articles may even tell you how to study and how much to study. The real predicament actually goes a step further while exploring questions such as when to start (college/post college/after settling into work)? Why must I choose to take this up as a career and what are the services most suitable to my interest and educational background? What is the opportunity cost in life with an exam as uncertain as this. Its only after reaching the interview stage that I tried finding out the statistics concerned to gauge the competition. It turns out that approximately 10+lakh candidates applied for CSE 2017, 5 lakh appeared, 13,300 cleared the prelims and 2500 made it to the interview. Final list contained 990 candidates. Mind-boggling as these figures might be and with the dwindling vacancies each year, remember that irrespective of the seats, you only need one. Through this article, I shall endeavour to share all the doubts which came to my mind and their answers.
No two journeys are same but while picking your strategy, pick the one closest to yours.
WHEN TO START
I pursued a 5 year integrated law course in my undergraduation. Immediately after college, I worked for over 5 years in the power sector litigation and started preparing for this exam about 3 years ago. This was my first attempt at the Mains and hope you all benefit from my strategy.
My approach was to go about this exam like a realist. Civil services examination in our nation is treated like an unsurmountable gamble. I had always decided to hedge myself with work experience first. But if you can afford to, I would recommend that start early and that you may give yourself a year of dedicated preparation time. The ability to take risk decreases as years pass by.
Service preference: Far too many people are confused about their service preferences. I would encourage that everyone begin with the exercise of crystallising what their top 5 service preferences are. Each service has its own glory and setbacks. Hence, it becomes important to see one’s suitability and interest. This year the top 100 rank is flanked by a varied mix of IAS, IPS, IFS and IRS Income Tax.
Before I begin to share my experience I significantly need to give credit to my parents. There were far too many days when the going got really tough and I would come back from work and break down. Each time my father reminded me to be strong and to understand that this pressure was only the tip of the iceberg and the field that I had chosen for myself will be far more challenging than cracking this exam would be. He would tell me that it was okay to fail and rise. He told me it was okay if success didn’t come as early as it could have had I taken a break from work as long as it made me more strong and resilient. Everytime I went back to work next day and as a ritual I would rewrite on my white board a tiny, “hang in there/ don’t quit/ to quit is easy”. A bigger role was played by my mother thanks to whom, the only thing that I had to manage was work and my syllabus.
- Time management: This is the most crucial part of the preparation. Time is your most precious resource, value it more than any other virtue or asset. Here are some tips:
- Travel: For the first two years I spent over 4 hours travelling to and fro from work daily. This left barely two hours daily for me post work apart from the weekends. If you have a choice, pick a place of residence close to work to additionally save on the exertion. Remember that by the time you get home from work towards the fag end of the day to open your books, there are lakhs of other students who would have already utilised their day by finishing two newspapers, reading their optional, practicing some answer writing etc. This is why it is essential to make sure that you are able to give your utmost concentration in those few hours. Always keep some reading material handy on you. To utilise the travel time, I always carried a current affair magazine or newspaper in my handbag (even to family functions)
- Breaks and lengthy meetings: You will need to become an expert in squeezing time during many work events, office celebrations and lengthy meetings. As a lawyer, I additionally found a lot of my time getting drained in endless adjournments of our matters. At least half a day would go simply sitting and waiting for our matter to come up or while standing with files for hours while the matter would be getting heard. For this I made deliberate efforts to find some quite corners and I would always keep a write-up handy to pull through in between my files during the meetings and court hearings. Wherever even this didn’t work, I had downloaded the PIB app on the phone for a quick glance. Also, it is suitable to avoid any work events and office celebrations unless your presence is absolutely and officially essential. Additionally I consciously tried saving on the free time during the lunch break by quickly eating on my desk and then reading a little whenever possible.
- Newspaper: I found notes making very time consuming so I underlined and cut out articles and filed them subject wise. These proved handy especially for mains subsequently.
- Reorientation of goals: Write down in front of you what is that you want for yourself foremost. Far too many times if you are a hardworking person, you will tend to find it difficult to balance work and studies. You will want to ace in both. For the longest time I struggled to maintain a balance since I would stretch myself far beyond what my nature of work demanded and it would invariably spill over post work. Trying to slowly restrain myself from jumping and taking time consuming assignments caused a cognitive dissonance for the longest time. You would periodically need to remind yourself that proving your worth to yourself is the foremost and that it is alright to forego smaller victories for a bigger cause. As long as you finish the work assigned to you, you needn’t stress yourself about issues like increments, promotions, external recognition and appreciation. Losing focus here can be a slippery slope.
- Mentally prepare to fight it alone: A professional space is very different from the slightly casual college atmosphere from which we graduate to work. One has to be mentally prepared to face resistance if people discover you’re working towards additional higher pursuits. You may or may not find an encouraging atmosphere, don’t let it get to you. If you encounter bad days, there will also be good days and especially some days with light work, make the most of that time. I had a note stuck on my desk which said that “remember there will be rainy days”. If on any day I felt like I was becoming complacent, it motivated me to utilise my time efficiently so that I could be easy on myself during difficult work days, which are bound to occur in any normal course.
Even if Prelims is merely a qualification exam, in my experience it is the most crucial stage of elimination. I have known of many rankers who clear mains in their first attempt but struggle deeply with the preliminary examination. Do NOT take this paper lightly. Its repercussions are significant, you don’t just lose a year of your life waiting for the next opportunity, you also don’t get to prove your worth. Ironically, the marks of prelims are not considered for anything apart from mere disqualification. I narrowly missed the cut off for my prelims in the year 2016. I revamped my strategy for 2017 and scored a whopping 130 when the cut off was as low as 105 for that year.
The difference between my strategy in the two years is as follows:
- Frame of mind at the day of the exam: This is going to be the penultimate factor determining where you land on the final list as well as whether you crack through. So it becomes important that no matter what exam baggage, existential crisis, cold feet etc you have, you let your history be your history and put your best foot forward. I realised in 2016 prelims, I was getting briefly distracted by my health and office related thoughts in between the exam. In 2017 my last month before the prelims is what made all the difference. I decided to take a fortnight off before the prelims and disconnect with the world at large so that at the day of the exam I had my entire focus on the paper. Secondly, I drastically reduced my stress intake. The stress level usually peaks a few weeks before the exam given the volume of revision that one is left with. I would constantly keep watching some funny videos and tv series simply to avoid my panic stage. I essentially started cutting myself some slack and let myself lead some easy days to simply maintain my calm. I prioritised revision material and focussed more on just relaxing than stressing on the syllabus that was still left for revision. On the final day, unlike 2016 Prelims where I hesitated in marking more than 70 questions, I marked 89 in 2017 and that made all the difference because I was able to tell myself to have faith on all that I had studied and not second guess myself. This proved extremely beneficial and I was able to get a clean sweep edge with 130 marks which was 25 marks more than the cut off.
- Health: In both my prelims 2016 and the Mains 2017, I was left struggling with severe health issues. Both the time I had to tell myself that your health is in your hands and it can as much as garner sympathy if you don’t clear the exam. But it can’t be an excuse so it is extremely important to not neglect your health. Life in the longer run is also much bigger than this exam so focussing on this will be a win-win.
- Revision of the test series: This was the game changer for me in 2016. I had solved all the Vision IAS tests and revised none. This confused me a great deal on the final day as I was unable to narrow down whether I had got that particular right or wrong in the original tests. In 2017, I solved 75 tests, both Insights and Vision. I revised all of them. Doing two test series helped me in preparing for both types of questions which were theoretical as well as analytical.
|Sources for Prelims
|Both Old and New NCERTS from 6th-12th + Spectrum for Modern India
|Spectrum (did it once but didn’t find it useful), CCRT publication also glossed through in the previous attempt. Left this for 2017 and relied on the Fine Arts NCERT and basic NCERTs for History
|Science and Technology
|Read the static 6th-10th NCERT only once. Mainly focussed on Vision IAS, the Hindu and Insights
|Shankar, Newspaper, Majid Hussain (dint find as useful), Current Affairs monthlies, Unacademy videos, NCERT
|The Hindu, PIB, Yojana (past 2 years), Vision and Insights handouts (selectively read the other for information not covered elsewhere previously)
|NCERT class 6-11th old; NCERT class 11th and 12th new, GC Leong, studied Map out of general interest
|Ramesh Singh read once for general overview; Budget; Eco Survey; NCERT for macroeconomics and newspaper + CA monthlies
|Lakshmikant and Current Affairs
I had a large proportion of my optional to be covered by the time I realised I was clearing the Prelims. I had to heavily economise on my sources and subjects that I paid attention to in order to make this attempt count. Subjects like World History, Post Independence History, Ethics etc which are covered in the Mains, I read for the first time after clearing prelims. Clearing Mains therefore, crucially hinged on smart studying. For this I took a week simply compiling all the sources, sticking the syllabus all over my room and contacting as many people as I could to find out their strategy. Most importantly I spoke to people who cleared Mains alongside a job. That made the endeavour appear realistic and achievable.
Tip: Unlike Prelims where Revision and precise recollection becomes most important, in Mains my approach was to FINISH the syllabus. For the first timers this is very important since by this stage you have acquired sufficient knowledge. Its crucial therefore to have a wide understanding of each topic
Culture – Did Nitin Sangwan’s notes published on Insights multiple times.
Post Independence- Nitin Sangwan’s notes and NCERT (major events such as land reforms, wars , India’s challenges just after independence are very important)
World History- Nitin Sangwan’s notes
Society- Vision Mains 365
History and Geography – had prepared them thoroughly for Prelims. Therefore, owing to paucity of time, relied on prior knowledge instead of spending extra effort. However, watched Mrunal’s Geography videos for World Geography
Relied entirely on note making here post Prelims + 2 ARC + Vision 365 and Insights CA + critical analysis of various Bills and Acts becomes very important. Additionally revised past 2 year’s Yojana. Also used to listen to some lessons on Unacademy.
Disaster Management – visited government websites and read Sendai Framework. Supplemented with Vision notes
Security – Picked a local publication which concisely dealt with a broad overview +supplemented with current affairs
Science and tech- Same source as prelims
Economics and Agriculture – Budget, Economic Survey (past 3 years – didn’t make additional effort- had them lying underlined so went through that) NITI ayog 3 year action plan
Lexicon + Vision Handout + ARC – learnt a lot from the test series feedback.
Test Series for Mains: This turned out to be the deciding factor. Instead of focussing on a million sources, I subscribed only to 12 tests and solved them all before the exam. I did them at home and timed myself each time. I first focussed on finishing my paper within time and then moved to building on the content. I took each comment received on the answer sheets constructively and it helped me in building a better approach and structure subsequently. Towards the end of my final exam, based on these tests, I was broadly able to predict my marks in each of the papers with a +/-5 aberration.
Essay: While it is advisable to practice essays before hand, I simply didn’t have the time to write and seek evaluation. But I had published many articles in my college days and being a lawyer, I am generally fond of writing. Hence, my strategy was to read up a few essays by previous toppers and get a hang of what is the expected style of writing. Additionally, I narrowed down on some predictable topics based on experience and made a broad mental framework as to how I would approach these topics. The catch with writing in the examination hall as opposed to creative or academic writing at leisure is that the exam happens within a time constraint. Keep this in mind, but at the same time keep your essay fresh and not boring. This strategy helped me score pretty well in my essay. Additionally, keep your essay simple, optimistic and balanced with a proper analysis touching as many sectors and segments as possible.
OPTIONAL LAW paper and INTERVIEW- I shall cover in a subsequent post when time permits.
Style of study for Prelims vs. Mains: Integrating prelims and Mains study will go a long way in making the preparation holistic. I remember cramming various details during the prelims like government schemes and their specifics, environmental facts, cultural jargons etc, constantly detesting the method of rote learning. However, it is during the Mains that I realised the importance of taking a bird’s-eye view of the entire syllabus. Using the interesting facts to substantiate my answers during the Mains played a huge part in giving my marks an edge. Likewise, having a conceptual clarity of the concepts also plays a large role in narrowing down to the right options during Prelims and eases the sail through during Mains. This realisation dawned on me much later during my mains and I hope you will benefit from the hindsight and be more informed than I was.
A quote in a Michael Phelps video that I saw during my preparation kept me going through the challenging times which is “It is what you do in the dark which puts you in the light”
Please continue being honest to your preparation and rest will all fall in place when the time is right. I wish you all the very best !